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Three Little Letters That, When Strung Together, Insult A Nation


With Ukraine struggling for territorial integrity, it may seem trivial to worry about something as mundane as a name.


But nobody likes being called by the wrong name, and that goes for places as well as people. In the case of Ukraine, it's happened a lot.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Don't doubt the bipartisan concern that's been expressed about the situation in the Ukraine. There's something immediately...

JARED LETO: To all the dreamers out there around the world watching this tonight, in places like the Ukraine and Venezuela...

WAYNE KNIGHT: (As Newman) I still have armies in the Ukraine.


MICHAEL RICHARDS: (As Kramer) The Ukraine...

BLOCK: That was President Obama, actor Jared Leto and the characters Newman and Kramer from "Seinfeld," all bungling the country's name.

CORNISH: The Ukraine is a common construction, but it's wrong. That nation's constitution clearly names it as Ukraine. And the insertion of that definite article definitely bothers some people.

PETER FEDYNSKY: When people say the Ukraine, I feel somehow a little twinge.

BLOCK: Ukrainian-American translator Peter Fedynsky says the "the" is demeaning. The confusion, he says, stems from the root word for Ukraine: krai.

FEDYNSKY: Krai can mean land, it can be country, it can be edge; it may mean borderland.

BLOCK: And that's why in Soviet times and earlier, referring to the Ukraine, or the borderland, was common.

CORNISH: Today, Fedynsky says those three letters make a big difference to Ukrainians.

FEDYNSKY: Well, language is a powerful thing, and it creates certain impressions. And if you attach "the" to the name of the country, you diminish its value; and you question its independence, and take for granted that it belongs to someone else. Well, it doesn't.

BLOCK: Of course, to confuse matters, some countries do embrace the "the," for example, the Philippines and the United States.

CORNISH: But to recap, Ukraine is the country. The Ukraine, that's just a mistake. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.
Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.